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Published February 23 2012

Board rejects NDSU tuition hike request

WAHPETON, N.D. – With fears of retaliation from lawmakers looming large, a divided state Board of Higher Education rejected Thursday a half-percent hike in North Dakota State University tuition.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani told the board the increase was necessary to prevent cuts to core programs and services.

The university “has a long record of holding its tuition and fees at an extremely low rate, but we can’t continue to stretch and stretch,” Bresciani said. “We are to the breaking point.”

He also said the increase would have helped NDSU keep pace with the University of North Dakota and other four-year schools in the state system. The board approved 2.5 percent tuition increases for those schools.

But Grant Shaft, the board’s president, said even a modest tuition bump at NDSU was politically unpalatable after an 8.8 percent hike last year provoked outrage and threats of funding freezes from some legislators. The Legislature doesn’t have oversight over tuition rates, but it does set the budget for the state’s university system.

The proposed hike would have raised tuition by about $31 a year for full-time in-state undergraduates and netted the university about $400,000.

Bresciani said every dollar helps. But Shaft said he wasn’t willing to jeopardize system-wide funding over a relatively small sum.

“I believe very strongly that a half a percent increase will lose them both the half and the 8.8,” Shaft said. “I believe the Legislature will take it all back.”

Bresciani said NDSU remains both affordable and underfunded relative to its size and mission.

Shaft agreed but said a new funding model expected to be hashed out in the next legislative session is a better solution than a short-term fix that could poison the university system’s relationship with the Legislature.

He voted against the 8.8 percent increase for similar reasons, and he said the Legislature’s response proved his fears prescient.

A recent university system report said both NDSU and UND are about $920 cheaper per year than comparable schools in the region. Mandatory tuition and fees currently total $7,174 at NDSU and $7,091 at UND.

Cam Knutson, NDSU’s student body president, said he supported a half-percent increase.

“One of the big things we heard from students across campus was, ‘We don’t want the cheapest education. We want the best quality education we can get for an affordable rate,’” he said.

The eight voting members of the board were split evenly on the tuition increase, and it failed on the tied vote.

Robert Vallie, an NDSU senior and the board’s student representative, was joined by Richie Smith, Terry Hjelmstad and Michael Haugen in voting yes. Shaft, Vice President Duaine Espegard, Kirsten Diedrich and Claus Lembke voted no.

Diedrich said she could not support the measure for fear of legislative retribution but wasn’t happy to have to weigh that concern.

“I know that the function of this board is to support our institutions of higher education, but here we are fearing retaliation if we do so?” she said.

Espegard echoed similar concerns. Shaft said the Legislature’s shadow is an inevitable factor in the board’s decision-making.

“The reality is, we are a part of the political process,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502